Coffee Klatch: A History

Our coffee klatch is chiefly composed of old people these days. Not you, Kyle. But the rest of us regulars. One day DiAnne announced: “I’m married to a 70-year-old man.” I commiserated. So am I. We’ve met weekly at Coffee at the Point for ten years. Maybe six, maybe sixteen. Ten years is my fallback guess for how long ago anything was. When did we take that trip? Ten years ago. When did we buy this mattress? Ten years ago. Time for a new one.

Judy gets credit for our being here. We met her and Kyle, Lara, Alan and his young son Nick at a coffee shop in Whittier, where we all lived and some of us still do. Alan and Nick played chess with a Simpsons set. Lara came with baby Dedee in a stroller. When that shop closed we said our goodbyes. Judy refused: “Oh no, you don’t. We’ll find another place.”

“We” meant Judy, who found Coffee at the Point, then operating with another name and owner, and rounded us up. C at P is in Five Points, which borders Whittier. Alan started working Saturdays and Nick started playing sports, so we soon didn’t see them anymore. Lara moved to the burbs, doesn’t get to town much and Dedee just graduated from high school. Congrats, Dedee!

We added John and DiAnne, who I at first frowned on because they live on the wrong side of Downing. (This is a Whittier group, people!) “How long have you been coming to this coffee group?” I asked DiAnne. “About ten years,” she replied. I glared at her. Now we have drop-ins from as far afield as Cheesman Park. We also include Jerry, who lives upstairs from the shop, takes the elevator and walks 30 feet to join us, the closest thing we’ve got to a New York experience.

Judy began to manage the art for C at P a few years back. One morning we discovered the owner, Ryan, had set up a table with a black tablecloth and printed sign: “Reserved for Judy Weaver & Friends.” Every Saturday morning since, our reserved table awaits us. It’s gone a bit to Judy’s head. She issues warnings about who may or may not be her friends this week.

Alan showed up last Saturday with a towering young man, a fellow who graduates from college next year, is 21 and claims to be the little Nick kid we used to watch play chess. “How long since we’ve seen you?” “About ten years,” Alan promptly replied.

Judy’s an extrovert. I like her anyway, but she’s constantly bringing flyers for some event, ideas for meeting at the farmer’s market, or the news that next week is Juneteenth. To her extrovert mind, a street festival’s booths and bands and people packed in like sardines means coming earlier and staying later. Phil immediately says, “we won’t be here next Saturday, then.”

No longer surprised by our introvert attitude—she’s heard this response from us before—Judy remains undeterred. Clearly, we need to get out more. It’s her mission to see that we do. That goes for Jerry too. Kyle, DiAnne and John do fine on their own.

Chloe is a lovely Cleo Parker Robinson dancer who worked at the coffee shop through her pregnancy. We’d met the baby, but recently she walked in with a toddler. Transformations of children you rarely see are miraculous: that baby became a stunning little boy in two blinks. “He’s going to be a heartbreaker,” I gushed. Just then Ryan’s brother Donovan walked past, wagging an admonishing finger: “He’s spoken for.” Chloe smiled. “Donovan wants him for his daughter. It’ll be an arranged marriage.”

This coffee klatch has evolved from a casual gathering to a commitment. Now when you’re not going to attend you have to let the others know. That could be my fault. One morning I accused John and DiAnne of having been absent. “That’s right,” they replied, readily admitting their guilt. “You’ll have to bring an excuse next time,” I snapped. Once a teacher, always a teacher.

We spend a lot of time in what Phil calls echo conversations: liberal Democrats all, we rant against Trump. Did you hear what he said about Brexit? Pathetic. John Oliver said if he’d just breathed into the microphone it would have been more information. We’re a pandemonium of parrots on such topics.

Our neighborhood conversations have evolved. In the early 2000s they were like, you know, that Victorian square on the corner with the metal porch columns? Oh, that one. I hate those columns. Did the cops come? Now our conversations are mainly, did you see the particleboard mini-mansion they’re building on that lot? Modernistas in the midst of Queen Annes. Disgusting.

Phil and I may be introverts, but we’re still human and hence social. I read somewhere that even seeing people once a week improves spirits. Saturday morning coffee has for decades helped do that for us. Or maybe for ten years.

Posted in Humor, Neighborhood | 5 Comments

Cherry Picking

Backyard cherry tree

Backyard cherry tree

Through the breakfast room window, I notice the cherries are ripening. After that I can’t enter the room without pausing to gaze at them. Tart cherries turn a deep, bright red the shade of Marilyn Monroe’s lipstick, glow against the emerald of their leaves.

They don’t belong to me. One cherry tree is in Jenn and Eric’s backyard, rooted near my fence, and some of its branches arch over, so I can easily reach them. Or I could, the last time there were cherries. Another tree is in my other neighbor’s front yard. I watch day by day as the redness advances. Whatever else I have planned, I will be picking cherries soon. I can’t stand the idea of wasting all that fruit.

The son of a friend has become a farmer, has orchards. “Aren’t fruit trees wonderful,” his mother said. “They give and give.” Recently her son posted a photo of branches bowed with fruit and wrote, “this is my life now.” The tree’s timeline is his timeline. There is no choice. Somehow that has a calming effect. I am no farmer, but for this brief moment I’m on nature’s schedule. Three days later, I put aside my work and get out the ladder.

A hard late freeze, Dickinson’s blond assassin, decimated the blossoms last year. Facebook reminds me that the last time we had cherries was two years ago. A hiatus of two years leaves me relearning. When I’m up in the branches I have to move deliberately, be careful not to poke my eye out. Bits of stem and leaf catch in my hair, fall into my shirt, nest in my bra. Cherries turn red first on the sun side. I need to check before plucking, find many still yellow on the unexposed half. I start being able to identify the right shade of redness. Picking goes faster after the first time.

I can only reach the lowest branches of Jenn and Eric’s tree this year, and Christine’s has grown beyond my five-foot ladder’s reach. Two years ago, when there was a bumper crop, her house was vacant and I easily harvested bagsful from that tree. Trees grow so slowly we don’t notice. It shocked me recently to see a 1990s photo of our house. The crown of the spruce barely reached the top of the first floor window. Now it towers above the roof and has grown wide enough to provide shade to the front of the house. Our living room is cooler in summer than it once was.

Cherries ready to freeze

Cherries ready to freeze

I research again what to do with cherries. Rinse and drain them, spread wax or parchment paper on a cookie sheet, pop the pits out the stem hole, space pitted cherries on the sheet and freeze. A few hours later, divide them by cupfuls and put them in freezer bags, where they now won’t form clumps. It’s a repetitive job, but I fall into a rhythm, take satisfaction in filling the sheet. I discard those not ripe enough, those with bad spots, those with a bite taken out of them—damn Eastern gray squirrels and whoever let them hitch a ride out west.

Luckily these are tart cherries, too sour even for squirrels. One year when the cherries reached a certain winey peak a murmuration of starlings descended on them in a feeding frenzy of fluttering wings and rattling branches. Those birds are descended from the one hundred European starlings released in Central Park in the 1890s. People thought it a charming idea for the park to be home to all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare. The feeding frenzy lasted an hour or so, and the tree was stripped of its fruit when they were done. Nature is far more efficient than we are.

These are pie-making cherries, cobbler cherries, require lots of sugar. They are hardly a staple. It is an indulgence to harvest them. I make five forays with the ladder over several days and then I’m done. Those luscious-looking crimson fruits high up the tree are beyond my reach. Something is always beyond our reach.

My neighbors won’t pick the rest even if they have taller ladders: they are busy people with demanding careers. But I can let them go now. I’ve done what I can. The desserts I make with these cherries frozen within an hour of picking taste wonderful. And for the few days I spend climbing into branches and putting them up for later use, I participate in an ancient process, imagine myself connected once again to the earth.

 

Posted in Neighborhood | 6 Comments

Women and Writing

 Woolf's wonderful essay


Woolf’s wonderful essay

During the women’s movement in the late 60s, a poet of one name, Alta, asked this question: “How often have we had clean sheets and nothing on sheets of paper?”

No internet in those days, no digital journals. Shameless Hussy, Alta’s feminist magazine, was mimeographed, stapled and arrived in the U.S. mail. The issue in which I had a poem featured a black and white centerfold photo of Alta herself, wearing nothing but a sanitary napkin and belt, her thumb hooked lasciviously beneath the elastic strap at her hip. Young women don’t even know what I’m talking about.

The photo shocked and delighted me. Alta was not gorgeous nor was she model-thin. Nice breasts. Curvy. She was a healthy American woman making a statement about our attitudes toward womanhood. Right on. I stopped wearing a bra immediately. That didn’t last long, now that I look back on it. Much that I thought of as permanent turns out to have been ephemeral when I look back on it.

Alta enlivened feminist issues for me. I discovered A Room of One’s Own. And Tillie Olsen’s Silences. Women and writing was the slice of the feminist pie I cared most about: good thing, too, because the ERA was never going to get ratified. (Talking to you, Arizona, and a dozen more.) Soon after Alta asked her question about linens I was married with four stepchildren, making decisions to do laundry instead of writing, cook instead of writing, go to work instead of writing, take care of children instead of writing. Being a woman was a major obstacle to being a writer for me and for many others.

I couldn’t even decide my own identity. At a 1972 memorial reading for Kenneth Patchen, that great and undervalued American poet, the program listed me as Pat Keuning. It will interest Denver poetry buffs to know that in the program, organized by Henry Hough, I read with James Ryan Morris, Tony Scibella and Larry Lake among others. I was one of the new hippie kids, startled by the rowdiness of the crowd, some of whom had been drinking. Their Patchen was apparently not the one I loved.

In 1981, at something billed as a Chicano Poetry Reading, I had the honor of reading with Lalo Delgado and Ray Gonzalez among others and I was Pat Urioste. My first book of poems, by Patricia Keuning Urioste, had just been published. But I wasn’t a Chicana poet and that identity also passed. Meanwhile my poems continued to be small savings scraped from the corners of my busy life. Clean sheets and nothing on sheets of paper.

“The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first,” says Tillie Olsen, who published her first book at 50. As I was drafting this, I remembered the towels, took them downstairs and started them washing. In the kitchen, I paused to think about what to make for dinner. Staring into the back yard, I observed the overgrown vine on the fence, almost went out to trim it. No. I’m supposed to be writing. Get a glass of water. Back upstairs with you.

Nonetheless, things are better now. “It is remarkable,” says Virginia Woolf, “what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about.” Writing is much more enjoyable in retirement, when I don’t have to go to work every morning and a regular check arrives anyway. Writing happens in a disciplined way I never managed before. So many distractions when you’re young. I had to experience night life, bars, bands and dancing; had to man picket lines and go to jail; had to take care of children; start and stop various careers; have bad marriages—bad marriages are consuming, although I sometimes wrote because of them—had to teach, love teaching, devote my evenings and weekends to grading and planning. I had to finally, for the second book of poems in 1994, decide what my name was and stick to it.

At my computer in my own upstairs room, I’ve had a peaceful Monday morning of writing. Below my windows, a quarrel of sparrows broadcasts from the Beauty Bush. Its masses of pink blooms flutter to the ground, will soon be gone. In these post-retirement years, I have written over 100 essays and poems, translated a 360-page biography and 50 Mexican short stories. I’ve learned about revision, about patience, about how to keep domestic urges at bay until I’ve got 800 words. And I still have clean sheets.

Posted in Memoir, Writing | 4 Comments

Moments of Sunshine in My Pocket

High school kids pile into an SUV in the DSA parking lot, seats filling quickly. Three more loiter around the open back gate, not wanting to clamber into that cramped space behind the seats. Finally the boy driving has a mini-tantrum, jumps up and down and yells: “just get in so we can go for food!” They do. Jammed together, but food the magic motivator.

*

I hear a loud boom, pause, boom, at the upstairs window see a young man in the alley, apparently lifting something heavy, flipping it over: boom, pause, boom. Privacy fences do their job: limit visibility. I see the young man’s head, his arms up to push, hear the thudding sound, watch him rest, then bend so his head disappears. Phil can’t stand it, goes out to ask, “hey buddy, can’t you roll that thing?” It’s a truck tire, nearly as tall as he is. We are unclear on the concept. The young man is Scott, lives on the corner and this is his workout: flipping a giant truck tire up and down the alley. Does it once a week, he says.

*

It’s a regular socialist party at Lake Steam today: three elderly women wrapped toga style in white sheets eat lunch in the dining room. “We got to catch up with the rest of the civilized world on health care,” says one. The second asks, “We already have socialized police, fire, education—what’s the big deal?” “Right, a single payer system,” snaps the third. “And put a lid on those damn Big Pharma companies.”

*

At the Y we have finished our workout and are leaving, when we realize a group of four young men are dancing on the steps outside the front doors while another on the sidewalk films them on his phone. Then we hear the music and see they are doing Y-M-C-A. We wait until the filming ends to step outside. “Is that going viral?” Phil asks. They all laugh. “We hope so.”

*

In the last two weeks of school, I assigned my 8th grade writers a goodbye and now four vocal music students huddle around one computer, reading what Martin has written, about saying goodbye to his treble voice, and to middle school, and to the best friends he’s ever had. They have a box of tissues beside them and take turns reading aloud, choking up so someone else has to take over, all four dabbing at their eyes and reading the whole thing over again, one more time.

When I ask them to share something from their brainstormed goodbye lists, one boy says, “__________’s leaving,” and several applaud. I didn’t hear what he said, was about to ask him to repeat. But Hattie heard, knew who he meant and jumped into indignant action. “I can’t believe you said that and people applauded. How could you be so mean?” Thank God for the Hatties, without whom we’d devolve as fast as the kids in Lord of the Flies.

*

Phil gets on an elevator with one black woman, says that it’s certainly a gloomy day. “Yes,” she replies, smiling, “but I always keep some sunshine in my pocket.”

*

I am watering the flowerbed in the parking strip when a family comes walking along the sidewalk. I make sure my hose is laying flat as they approach, a tubby guy and wife, with a large dog on a tight leash, another guy who looks related to the first one, a woman and two young girls, fair-haired, probably seven and ten. As they are passing me, the tubby guy says, “you can spray the kids if you want.” “Really?” I asked. “Yeah, sure,” he says, so I flip the spray quickly, twice in their direction. Satisfying shrieks. As they move down the block, Dad calls out, “Thanks.”

*

I’m at my laptop, hear the thudding boom, pause, boom, don’t bother to look: I know who it is.

*

Taking the Quebec exit from I-70, we pass an SUV pulled onto the shoulder, smoke pouring from beneath the raised hood. A man with phone to his ear has backed 20 feet from it. Looking over my shoulder as we pass, I see orange flames leaping from the engine compartment. Before we stop at the bottom of the ramp, a semi truck and a pickup have also pulled over, their drivers getting out, one with a fire extinguisher on his shoulder, headed for the glowing flames. “Those are real men,” Phil says. Men ready to stop at a moment’s notice, prepared for action. Those are the helpers, the ones we count on in any emergency or disaster, the ones who restore faith.

Posted in Education, Memoir | 6 Comments